Sophie McShera and David Hartley in BBC Two's The Gallows Pole. Photo: BBC
From Fellowes to Meadows. Is this your title? chirps Sophie McShera. I don't write headlines, I tell her, but this is definitely history. McShera is known and loved throughout the Western world as Daisy, the naive if grumpy dishwasher that Julian Fellows has parked on the bottom step of Downton Abbey, firmly under the heel of Mrs. Patmore Leslie Nicole.
But as far as her next role and her first real starring role, she plays Shane Meadows. That's right: the writer-director of This Is England, the one with booze, drugs and improvisation. It must have felt like a real jump. “It's a leap,” she agrees, curling up happily at a banquet at London's Soho Theatre. “I'm not sure I could have done one without the other.”
Meadows branched out from The Gallows Pole, an alternative name for which may be This Was England. First, he moved away from his time and place – the modern Midlands – and moved the sticks to 18th-century Yorkshire. In addition, he draws on a literary source: a 2017 novel by Benjamin Myers about a daring forgery scam done in the 1760s by Cragg Vale Coiners. Driven by poverty, hunger, and the greed of the landowners (which makes this an all-too-timely adjustment), a band of weavers in a remote valley near Hebden Bridge cut off the edges of gold coins to turn the shavings into counterfeits, which they then put into circulation.
“What shocked me was that I didn’t know this story, and I’m from Yorkshire!” says McShera, who grew up in Bradford. It's not all that surprising: although rockers Tubthumping Chumbawamba sang about them and Sally Wainwright featured them in Last Tango in Halifax, the counterfeiters' big moment didn't come until Myers became word of mouth. What McShera could tell from a hasty reading before the Nottingham audition was that there was only one female character in the book.
“I said to Shane, 'I've seen all these women auditioning, what do you think of women?' He said, “I'm in, don't worry.” He reassured me.” He solved this problem by choosing a large line-up that met throughout the year and created a whole community.
The result without a script violates all the conventions of historical drama. There are even visions of stag-headed men on moorland in the story, a kind of phantasmagoria not to be found in even the most inaccurate adaptations of, say, Dickens. The style of work was new for McShera, who ceded all the improvisation at Downton to its creator: “Julian writes what he sees,” she explains. “He changed my relationship with Leslie a lot because of our relationship in real life.”
“I've never worked like this I panicked”: Sophie McShera at London's Soho Theater Credit: Clara Malden for The Daily Telegraph/Soho Theater
So the task of creating your own character seemed intimidating. “I have definitely never worked in this process before. Some people wrote reams of backstory. I panicked a little. I wanted to do my best to make the character round, but then I wanted to throw it all out.” She even sought wisdom from Downton's elders Nicole (“My TV Mom”), Siobhan Finneran, Jim Carter and Phyllis Logan. “When I got really scared that I wouldn't be good enough to do this Shane job, those are the people I call. We are like a small family.”
History remembers that Grace, the woman she plays, married David Hartley, the founder of Cragg Vale Coiners. The actors even visited their grave at Heptonstall every morning before filming. But the drama begins when he returns from Birmingham after a seven-year absence to find himself out of sorts with a brash lover he left.
McShera and This Is England veteran Michael Socha act out delightful scenes in which the Meadows have their cameras pointed at them as they squabble on their way to harmony. Even though historical language experts were used, it may seem like Skins in period costume when McShera specifically uses a modern lexicon (“wow”, “not cool”).
— I mean in I mean, does that bother you? she says. “I love this mix. There is a danger of thinking that these stories are really far away. A love story is a love story, and I don't want language to tear me out of it.”
McShera has big eyes and a mischievous self-confidence and enjoys her work as much as any other actor I have ever interviewed. Even at 38, she never seemed to stop counting her blessings ever since she accidentally entered the profession at 11. “I found drama at the Yellow Pages when my parents told me I needed to take up a hobby. I didn't know what else I could do.” Soon, the girl who had auditioned for the West End production of Goodbye Girl dropped out. McShera confirmed she could sing and speak with an American accent, went to the London Palladium and got the part. “I fell in love with acting from work.” A year later, she starred in “Annie” with Paul O'Grady (“sweet, sweet man”).
On the gallows pole, she was, to use her designation, one of the old-timers inducting newbies who were chosen after Meadows to open the net wide in search of new natural talent and plow through 5,000 taped auditions. . “There was this weird thing when I was a kid at Downton and now people ask me how it works.” Did they look at her the way she looked at Maggie Smith? “No no!” she screams. “This is a ridiculous comparison! I don't know if anyone has seen Downton.” (She's not sure if Meadows had it. “I'll have to ask him.”)
Filming her first scene with Dame Maggie, McShera “felt like the happiest girl in the world. I thought: “Pinch me, who would have thought?” She had similar feelings when they shared the West End stage with Mark Rylance in Jerusalem. “When I first went on stage with him, I naturally moved to him from the public eye, just like you. And he's like, “Don't do it. If you want to sit there, you sit there.” As for Cate Blanchett, her evil stepsister's evil stepmother in Kenneth Branagh's Cinderella: “I just loved how you felt like you were working with a legendary person. I really liked the way she carried herself on set.”
For all their differences, Grace and Daisy are united by the fact that they are not dressed to the nines (unlike Cinderella, where the sisters' outfits were so outlandish that “the team would have been in a stupor”). When asked about this, McSher displays a rare temper. “I want to play good roles and I don't want it to depend on how I look. You used to make a lot of people say, “Oh, you wash well.” You often hear this when you are on the red carpet. You're like, “Yeah, yeah, I just got my hair and makeup done for three hours.”
You can feel her tigerish enthusiasm for the new perspective Meadows opens up. “Shane can get something out of you that you didn't even know you had,” she says. However, from the way she talks about Downton, it's clear she didn't leave Daisy behind. “No, I love him!” she says when I promise not to let it dominate our chat, which happens before there are rumors in the media that the show might return to ITV.
“I really hope that we'll do one more,” she said. volunteers. “I know we all really want to come back.” Her only burning desire is for Daisy to suffer. “You don't necessarily want your character to be happy, because then you might end up with nothing good. And she's quite happy at the moment.” Birds of a feather flock together.
Gallows airs on BBC Two at 21:00 on Wednesday, all episodes available on iPlayer